Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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Sustaining Our CVAW Activism in the Face of Rising Threats

Published Date: 
Tuesday, February 17, 2015

In 2014 WELDD delivered three tailor-made regional workshops to frontline CVAW activists in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, incorporating self-care and integrated security techniques into strategies for resistance.

An increasingly dangerous environment

In recent years, threats against women human right defenders (WHRDs) have been rising, especially for those combating culturally-justified violence against women (CVAW), pointing to the need for comprehensive action to more effectively protect WHRDs.

In November 2013, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on the protection of human rights defenders, which specifically urged States to implement gender-specific laws to protect WHRDs.  The resolution was groundbreaking.  However, it also represented a compromise between the original text and the obstructions put up by conservative States; the final version of the resolution left out the clauses condemning all forms of violence against women, and the acknowledgement of risks faced by people working on issues of sexuality.  Probably the biggest blow for CVAW activists was the omission of an injunction against invoking customs, tradition or religious considerations to avoid obligations related to the elimination of violence.

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Participants at the Middle East and North Africa workshop held in Beirut, Lebanon.

A ground-up approach

Grassroots activists have long been aware of the risks one faces when taking a stand for justice and equality. They have suffered first-hand the slandering of their names, threats to their safety, even rejection by those they love.   They have also always created their own methods for sustaining their activism in the face of these threats – support networks on the local, national, and international scale have been an important part in this.  However, activists still often work in an environment where self-sacrifice is considered ‘part of the job’, where risk becomes normalised, and where ‘burn-out’ is seen as little more than an occupational hazard.

A ground-up approach is vital in countering the specific risks facings WHRDs.  Not only was the UN resolution somewhat lacking, but implementation of international standards is always far from perfect.  One of the most practical ways to address the situation is to train individuals and organisations in recognising, minimising, and negotiating the risks they face in their work.  Workshops produced for and by those already at the forefront of resisting CVAW in their communities can speak to activists’ specific contexts, and have the potential for immediate effects.

In November 2014, when the HRDs resolution was passed, WLUML had just completed a needs assessment survey of women activists in the MENA region, and part of the findings were that activists required training in strategies for defying CVAW and also for sustaining their activism in the difficult environment.   In the same month, WLUML convened a meeting in Lahore with partner organisations, during which they laid out their priority areas to be included in the training workshops.  WELDD partner IWE contributed their valuable expertise on concepts of integrated security and wellbeing into the development of the workshops.

The final agenda consisted of concepts of women’s leadership and the WLUML and WELDD standpoints; a conceptual overview of CVAW with a specifically feminist analysis; strategic and effective advocacy techniques; and sustainable activism with an emphasis on self-care and integrated security.  This agenda was framed within the larger WELDD picture of feminist leadership which works towards social transformation and promotes gender equality.  It was decided that three separate workshops would be held for activists working in the MENA, Asia, and Africa regions. 

From the outset, the workshops were created as simultaneously conceptual and practical; a synthesis of feminist analysis of CVAW and of concrete recommendations for strategising in the face of an increasingly difficult environment.   Unlike most other workshops, the self-care and wellbeing elements integral to sustainable activism were consistently woven throughout the workshops, with exercises incorporated at the beginning of each session, as well as in stand-alone segments.  The idea was that self-care should be a practiced and integrated habit rather than an after-thought.

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Participants take part in a self-care exercsie at the Asia region workshop held in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The Workshops

Taking place in June, August, and September in Beirut (Lebanon), Jakarta (Indonesia), and Dakar (Senegal) respectively, the workshops proved to be a resounding success.  The issues concerning activists in different countries varied; activists in Malaysia were concerned about polygyny, Afghan women about Baad (giving away girls to settle disputes) and Baadal (exchange) marriages and Jirga justice.  Iranian activists were campaigning for women’ to be allowed in sports stadiums, while their Iraqi counterparts were advocating against a discriminatory Personal Status Code and a lowered age of marriage, and Senegalese activists were engaged in rural community action to stop child marriage.  Beyond that, activists’ understanding of terms such as ‘feminism’, ‘leadership’, ‘equality’, and ‘justice’ was by no means uniform, and they came to the topics from varied political and social positions, with differing ages and levels of experience.

The commonalities, however, were vast.  All participants raised concerns about the rise in fundamentalist interpretations of religion and all shared common experiences of threats to their safety in security as a result of their human rights and gender equality work.  At each workshop, the self-care sessions prompted participants to discuss the impact on people around them and on their own health, social pressure, the psychological effects of feeling burnt-out, depressed, anxious, or numb.  Activists shared their stories of trauma, their personal fears, and the cathartic release of tears.

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Participants at the Asia region workshop held in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Lessons for the Future

One of the main results of each workshop was the shift in activists’ thinking about culture and gender relations.  The participants expressed having experienced a change in consciousness around what “culture” means – culture was revealed to be malleable, politicised, and shifting, rather than static.  The power relations behind dominant claims to “cultural authenticity” were uncovered.  Many participants expressed that the workshops had made them respect cultural differences, whilst also affirming the conviction that culture can never be used a justification for violence.

Participants also praised the exposure to the concept of transformative, feminist leadership and expressed that they would implement this in their own organisations, as well as taking forward the concrete strategy plans they had made in the final sessions. 

Perhaps the biggest shift to result from the three workshops was the attendees’ attitudes to their own wellbeing and the sustainability of their activism.  Expressing the sacrifices and hardships they have faced in their work in a safe space occupied by those with similar stories was invaluable experience. The environment proved a catalyst for activists to express feelings and thoughts which might long have been repressed. 

The participants expressed their plans to integrate wellbeing into their lives and work in various different ways – from vowing to reserve one day a week where they do no work, to commitments to training their community partners in self-care, and personal promises not to always say ‘yes’ to more work and responsibility. 

Many said that they had always thought that the role of an activists is to always be strong, and that the workshops made them realise they were allowed to rest, to take care of themselves, and to let go.  Some expressed the guilt they felt in having fun when there was so much badness in the world – when their colleagues were jailed, or their service-users abused.  The workshop, they said, taught them to value recreation and relaxation, and realise that only with self-care will the movement continue. 


Peace and Security
Political and Public Participation
Culturally Justified Violence Against Women